CommServ Office Sponsors Former Lawrence Teacher for Speaker Series

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Community Service Office, Mr. Steven Crowley recalled his experiences as a teacher at the Lawrence middle school that performed the worst of any in Massachusetts, with 95% of its 1,200 students failing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). A Harvard graduate whose teaching experiences range from affluent suburban schools to inner city ones, Mr. Crowley volunteered to instruct seventh graders in the humanities temporarily but remained at the school for the entire year. When Mr. Crowley began his first day of teaching, he found a syllabus for the year’s work that seemed to be identical to the material taught in the fifth grade curriculum. Thinking that there must have been some mistake, Mr. Crowley consulted the administration, which informed him, “No, there’s no mistake. This is what you will teach.” According to Mr. Crowley, instances such as that were not uncommon. Since the school does not have the resources to assist those students who have severe academic problems, students are allowed to repeat only one grade level. The reason why the school cannot help students who should not advance a grade lies in a major funding problem that evinces itself in gangs prowling the hallways, a decrepit physical plant, and numerous death threats to teachers. Nevertheless, Mr. Crowley explained that the school did not suffer from an excessive amount of physical violence. He recalled a story about a weapons inspection in which the administration discovered dozens of weapons. During the search, one student raised his hand and said, “We were never planning on using these in school. These are for getting home only.” Mr. Crowley cited outside influences such as the safety of the students’ neighborhoods as factors in their development of their “emotional fear.” This fear, Mr. Steven Crowley observed, is not a fear of success, but a fear of becoming “emotionally attached to the material.” Furthermore, he noted, the students have been told so many times that they cannot and will not succeed at anything that they are now scared to become attached to the material at which they think they will fail. In addition to leading the students to believe that they are failures, the situations Mr. Crowley described also isolate them from the outside world. For instance, most of the students and their families speak Spanish alone – a fact that often creates confusion and misinformation. Mr. Crowley recalled a story about the day after the September 11 attacks, when none of the student body came to class because of a false bomb rumor that had circulated on Spanish language radio channels. No coverage of this rumor aired on English radio stations, but, as most of the families speak Spanish, many were not aware of the truth. Despite these problems, Mr. Crowley assured the audience that between four percent and five percent of his seventh grade class displayed true motivation. “I have no idea how they did it. They’re amazing,” he said, “it was like they had blinders on. Nothing phased them.” The other students worked well during situations such as detention, in which they were isolated, but when they returned to class, they succumbed to peer pressures and misbehaved. The exceptionally talented students, Mr. Crowley explained, usually attend either Central Catholic or schools such as Andover, as these institutions seek intelligent students from underprivileged backgrounds. Apart from mentioning the pressures placed on the students from the outside, Mr. Crowley also discussed flaws in the way in which the school’s administration organizes the students. The school, which occupies a four-story building, places its most able students on the top floor and all of the learning-disabled students on another level. Another flaw in the administration, according to Mr. Crowley, lies in their practice of allowing teachers who have a long history of teaching at the school to work in the administration office. The result of this practice, however, is that the teachers do not want to return to the classroom. After Mr. Crowley explained all of the problems in the school’s atmosphere, students’ background, and in the administration’s treatment of the students, one member of the audience asked why no one from the government had ever attempted to assist the school. Mr. Crowley explained that a top curriculum developer had observed classes at the school, but before she could propose a new curriculum, she lost her job. Mr. Crowley asserted that he did not know the reasoning behind the decision.